Archive for the ‘syndicated’ tag

That Moment When You Realize How Little You Actually Know

By July 15th, 2013 at 12:07 pm | Comment


I like to call it an antipiphany* – that striking realization of the magnitude of what can be known, which reduces what you actually understand to a paltry amount.

I’ve seen it again and again with graduate students: they enroll feeling like smarty-pants, and within a year they are humbled by an antipiphany. Eventually settling into the comfort of not-knowing-it-all, they are motivated for discoveries, open to an epiphany.

Now a study by Aaron Price and Hee-Sun Lee found that participants in a citizen-science project, Citizen Sky, evaluated their own knowledge about science as lower after 6 months in the project compared to when they started the project.

What was the nature of participants’ apparent antipiphany? Through interviews, Price and Lee confirmed that participants developed a greater appreciation for how much they did not know and for how much they could potentially learn.

This appreciation was in conjunction with an increase in positive attitudes towards science. During those same 6 months, participants tended to seek out more science news and even other citizen-science projects. Realizing how little they knew simply drove them to want to know more.

A common message from citizen science projects is an empowering emphasis on the expertise that participants bring to the table. But does that emphasis encourage learning? Price and Lee’s study highlights for me a tightrope to be walked in citizen science: along with the empowering ‘anyone-can-be-an-expert’ message, participants need experiences that lead to an antipiphany, to understand and feel motivated by how much more there is to learn.


Citizen Sky Project

How did Citizen Sky, a project with over 6,000 registrants, walk the tightrope? Price and Lee took an in-depth look at project design. They outlined five design principles for citizen science projects.

“Design Principle 1: Use a context where volunteers’ contribution is necessary and meaningful for their scientific inquiry.”

In other words, citizen science should involve authentic research only, preferably testing hypotheses that could not otherwise be tested without help from the public. In Citizen Sky, participants were monitoring and trying to understand the 5th brightest star (epsilon) in the constellation Auriga. It is too bright for the highly sensitive detectors on most professional telescopes, and that’s why amateur astronomers were needed. Epsilon Aurigae isn’t really one star, but two or more: one supergiant and one (or two) almost dead stars, buried in a cloud of dust. The supergiant and the stars in the dust cloud revolve around each other, and one of these predictable eclipses, between 2009 and 2011, was the focus of the Citizen Sky project.

“Design Principle 2: Provide Internet resources to help volunteers interact with peers and scientists.”

In Citizen Sky, participants could interact by supplying data (brightness estimates of epsilon Aurigae), using web tools to explore everyone’s data, participating in online forums, participating in monthly live chats, and forming collaborative teams focused around mini-research projects.

“Design Principle 3: Actively involve scientists in a role of teaching and communication.”

In Citizen Sky, participants had access to professional researchers through an interactive blog, live chat sessions, and regular feedback, advice, and general support via the project website.

“Design Principle 4: Support participants for analyzing and presenting their own data.”

Authenticity in collecting and analyzing data is a key part of this principle. In Citizen Sky, participants could view graphs of their data superimposed over the data from everyone else. With the help of tutorials, they could explore what it might mean.

“Design Principle 5: Encourage participants to become an active member of a research community.”

Education researchers have long known the value of group work. Citizen Sky had dedicated space where participants could opt to form teams to work on a research project. The project even provided private areas for team members to chat and share documents. Participants formed 23 teams. Each had the intended goal of submitting a paper to a peer-reviewed astronomical journal.

Most citizen-science projects contain one or two of these design features, but Citizen Sky met ALL of these design principles.

Since Citizen Sky offered a veritable tapas menu of a little bit of everything, Price and Lee were able to tease apart which design elements fostered positive changes in participants’ attitudes about science. The answer they found is…

(drum roll, please)

…social activities!

If people spent time in the chat sessions with peers and scientists, then they learned more (including learning how much they did not know). Like the adage, you get out what you put in, participants who put energy towards the project gain the most from the project.

Price and Lee suggest that a sense of ownership in the scientific process and its products as well as a sense of community are two essential features of citizen science. People should not feel like anonymous data collectors or data processors. They must know each other. They must be real, just as the research must be real. Involvement only in the act of collecting data for science may not be enough to cause positive changes in attitudes toward science. Participants need to do more. And they need to do it together.

Just when I thought that I understood citizen science, Price and Lee’s results gave me the antipiphany of realizing how much more there is to understand. If we can design our citizen-science projects to bring scientific thinking into everyday conversations, then more people may realize there is so much more to learn. In this way, citizen science can take us one step closer in preparing our society to address complex issues and solve big problems. Just like the humbled graduate students, after antipiphanies in the online world of citizen science, perhaps we’ll all gain a collective e-piphany.


*Anyone know if there is already a word for this realization?

This post originally appeared on PLOS CitizenSci .


Price, C. A. and Lee, H.-S. (2013), Changes in participants’ scientific attitudes and epistemological beliefs during an astronomical citizen science project. J. Res. Sci. Teach.. doi: 10.1002/tea.21090

Caren Cooper is a scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology where she carries out research on birds almost exclusively with data collected by willing and able hobbyists. Caren has contributed guest blogposts about the history of citizen science for Scientific American. Twitter: @CoopSciScoop

Help find ways to prevent the common cold and flu!

By September 19th, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Comment

Health Tracking Network

As cold and flu season approaches in the Northern Hemisphere, many people are starting to think about what they can do to avoid getting sick. To help prevent illnesses, public health advice needs to be based on solid scientific evidence.

The Health Tracking Network is a citizen science project designed to fill some of these gaps in knowledge. You can join others from across the world in helping find factors linked to common illnesses such as the common cold, influenza, and stomach flu (gastroenteritis).

Anyone 18 years old or older can participate. When you join the Health Tracking Network, you:

  • spend 2-3 minutes per week answering questions about illness symptoms and related topics,
  • earn money for charities of your choice, and
  • can track your own health, fitness, or anything of interest to you with separate tracking tools.

Participation is completely anonymous.

The project began in April, 2011, and more than 415 people have joined so far. Through their participation, members of the Health Tracking Network have generated more than $2,000 in donations to charities.

The Health Tracking Network needs more participants from all over the world! More participants will allow the project to identify factors related to common illnesses with confidence, which may ultimately lead to good scientific advice about prevention. Join the effort now!

Guest post by Dr. Devon Brewer

Photo: NIH

Citizen Science Opportunities with The American Chestnut Foundation

By September 1st, 2011 at 10:32 pm | Comment

Jay Hoar describes various chestnut artifacts to visitors of PA Outdoor Heritage Days in Somerset, PA.  (Photo: Karen Danes)

Jay Hoar describes various chestnut artifacts to visitors of PA Outdoor Heritage Days in Somerset, PA. (Photo: Karen Danes)

Sara Fitzsimmons is the Regional Science Coordinator at The American Chestnut Foundation

The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) is a 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to restoring the American chestnut (Castanea dentate) to its original range. Once estimated to be 25% of the Appalachian forests, the species was all but eliminated from the landscape by an imported fungal disease caused by Cryphonectria parasitica, the chestnut blight fungus.

Since 1983, TACF has been working with volunteers and citizen scientists to breed disease-resistant trees and return them to the landscape. The program involves a minimum of six breeding generations, each of which requires labor-intensive controlled pollination to make the seed, and about 5-10 years to grow the trees and properly select them. To work through the entire breeding pipeline, then, takes a large amount of resources, and about 35 – 60 years!

A program such as this would not be possible without the many hands, minds, and legs of citizen scientists. TACF volunteers come from a wide variety of backgrounds – from salesmen to engineers, farmers to doctors and teachers – all of whom can bring a unique perspective to the program and enhance TACF’s work in a multitude of ways.

Over the past 25+ years, 1000s of volunteers have bred various generations of trees and grown tens of thousands of trees on their land. While breeding is the backbone of TACFs work, and there is continued need for more growers, citizen scientists have not only participated in, but also initiated, some unique programs.

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Tracking the Wild Horseshoe Crabs of New York

By August 23rd, 2011 at 4:37 pm | Comment

Spawning horseshoe crabs (photo courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service)

Spawning horseshoe crabs (photo courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service)

On June 1, 2011 at 11:51 PM, a group of people assembled on the beach in Northpoint, New York. There was no moon shining that night, not even a sliver. The people carried flashlights or wore headlamps. They held clipboards and paper.

Their mission: to report where horseshoe crabs were spotted along the beach.

This was just one of several places along New York’s shoreline where people collect data about horseshoe crabs. Volunteers also amassed on dark beaches in Stony Brook, Staten Island, Brooklyn and Westhampton. In all, volunteers monitored the comings and goings of horseshoe crabs at ten New York beaches that night.

They are a part of the New York Horseshoe Crab Monitoring Network, a group of citizen scientists who are documenting where horseshoe crabs emerge from the water to lay eggs along beaches in New York State.  On specific dates through the spring and early summer, participants collect data about the number of horseshoe crabs and identify their size and sex. They attach tags to the horseshoe crabs bulky exoskeleton and look for tags from prior years.

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Divers Help Quell the Roar of Invasive Lionfish

By August 7th, 2011 at 10:23 pm | Comment

A lionfish near the Caribbean island of Bonaire (Photo by Anne Pharamond)

A lionfish near the Caribbean island of Bonaire (Photo by Anne Pharamond)

It seems strange to mark the location of a fish, doesn’t it? They can swim and move away from the marker, right? I wonder while standing on a dock waiting for the boat that will take about ten of us out to a reef. There, we will scuba dive for fun and also mark the locations of lionfish, an invasive species in the Caribbean.

Volunteer divers on the Dutch island of Bonaire are helping Bonaire National Marine Park eliminate invasive lionfish from its coral reefs by marking the locations where the fish are found. A diver who spots a lionfish is instructed to attach a small flag, provided by the park, to a rock near the fish.

The answers to my questions about marking fish locations become clear once I splash into the water and see the fish and flag markers for myself.  Swimming along sections of reef, I saw dozens of flags that had been placed there by divers and each had one or more lionfish hovering nearby. It turns out that lionfish don’t stray far from their particular nook of reef. They stay near the markers.

It’s illegal to hunt or in any way harm marine life in the waters surrounding Bonaire. Except, that is, for lionfish.

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